Some people have the focus to do one specific thing with their lives. They might say it’s their life’s calling, while others call them “driven,” or “passionate.” Kelly Carmody could tell you a thing or two about being born to do something.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I’m making it my mission to be a positive influence for kids.”
Carmody, director of operations for the Boys and Girls Club of Manhattan, could tell you that being a woman with a mission does not mean taking the easy path, but that does not mean the trials are not worth the rewards.
Part of her desire to become a teacher came from a childhood where she said a lot of adults failed her. Her stepfather, for one, was not a positive figure in her life.
“I lived in a very sexist home where my mother was like a servant to him,” she said. “It was very old fashioned.”
She came to K-State and majored in social sciences and women’s studies. She said taking women’s studies courses had a profound impact on her.
“I was so amazed at all these powerful women and the difference they made,” Carmody said. “I think every woman is powerful, it’s just letting that power out.”
Carmody graduated from K-State in 2001 and moved to Oregon. She would later return to K-State for a master’s in special education in 2010.
In the meantime, she was a teacher for 10 years. Much of that time was spent working with emotionally disturbed children. Carmody said she felt she could do more to help children, so she became a foster parent. She has cared for 11 foster children, by herself. One of the children she cared for was a toddler with fetal alcohol syndrome who had been taken from a sexually abusive home. The girl didn’t even know how to walk when Carmody first got her. The girl was eventually returned to that home.
“It was heartbreaking,” Carmody said. “I only do long-term care, now.”
Carmody is currently caring for three foster children, all teenage boys.
“I do teenage boys because I want them to treat women right,” she said.
Her kids include Karl, a mentally disabled boy; Marc, who is almost 17 years old and had two prior failed adoptions; and Peyton, who is wheelchair bound. Peyton has multiple system atrophy type II, a disease that attacks the body. He was not expected to live to the age of 16, but he recently had his 16th birthday and is still going strong. Peyton has spent eight years – half of his life – under Carmody’s care. While most of the kids will only be with her until they turn 21, Peyton is permanent.
Carmody also has a biological child named Elihu, or Eli for short. He is two and a half years old.
In addition to being a single mother, Carmody’s works full time and holds leadership positions at the Boys and Girls Club. She is in charge of hiring and training their staff of 110 paid positions and 120 volunteers, as well as meeting with principals of local schools, giving talks at K-State classes, assisting with special needs children and more.
“Balance has been a huge issue to deal with. Interns are a godsend,” Carmody said with a laugh.
Carmody said one of the biggest misconceptions about the Boys and Girls Club is that it’s basically a day care center.
“It’s about extended learning. We get to teach healthy lifestyles, character building, things that aren’t taught anymore,” she said.
Carmody said one of the challenges they face is to make learning fun, especially to children who have fallen behind in school and are on the verge of giving up.
She gets to do a lot of “firsts” with kids, such as taking kids on hikes on the Linear Trail, or fishing trips. These may seem like little things to some people, but many of the kids come from homes where their parents don’t have time to do these things with them, Carmody said.
The demand for their services is steadily rising, too. According to Carmody, attendance has risen 30 percent in the last year. The Boys and Girls Club of Manhattan currently serves about 2,000 area children.
Their work has received international attention. Carmody and the Boys and Girls Club of Manhattan work with K-State on their Go Teacher program. This program brings educators each year from Ecuador to help them better master the English language so they can teach it to their students back home.
As part of the program, the teachers from Ecuador met with Carmody to learn more about how the Boys and Girls Club works. Carmody said it was so well received, K-State is sending her to Ecuador this summer.
“We’re especially grateful to Kelly for the opportunity to get this experience,” said Kevin Murry, associate professor and director of research and development of the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy.
Murry said this year’s group of students from Ecuador would be between 90-100 students, the largest ever. Carmody said they look forward to working with the Ecuador government further in the Go Teacher program.
“I love my life,” Carmody said. “I am around young people all day long. My life is not boring at all.”
In spite of her accomplishments, Carmody said she still has worries and fears, namely regarding her own children. She said she hoped Eli grows up to be happy and empathetic, and that all the negative things in the world don’t “suck the life out of him.” But she said she worried about all of her children and whether she was doing enough for them.
“I spend my whole life helping kids,” she said. “Will mine turn out okay?”
Peyton, her foster son of eight years, was one of last year’s regional winners of the Boys and Girls Club of America Youth of the Year, a speechwriting scholarship contest. In his speech, he credited Carmody with saving his life. This was shortly before he turned 16, the age the doctors had told him he would never live to see. Carmody said they are making plans for him to try for the national level next year, so he can use the scholarship money to go to college.
“People think they can’t make a difference because the world is so daunting,” Carmody said. “But all you have to do is save one life. Kids can’t have too many adults in their lives who are positive.”